I’ve moved to kristiewest.wordpress.com

Hi all, I’ve shifted this blog to one in my name instead.  It’s exactly the same, but from now on I won’t post anymore updates to this one as well – just that one. Posting the exact same thing to … Continue reading

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Questions I get asked: Why didn’t my brother call me to tell me our dad had died?

Questions I get asked: Why didn’t my brother call me to tell me our dad had died? From today I’m adding something new into my blog.  I’ve gotten in the habit of writing every week on a Thursday about whatever … Continue reading

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How to do a funeral speech – the lessons I learnt from my two Grandads

How to do a funeral speech – the lessons I learnt from my two Grandads

Earlier this week I was at a funeral.  It was a small service of about 15 or 20 people for a man in his 60’s who passed away.  The civil celebrant who was officiating at the funeral had planned a short simple service as the man’s daughter had planned to give a eulogy herself as part of it.  But when the time came she was too upset and just couldn’t get up and do it.  The celebrant asked her friend if perhaps she would be able to get up and read it instead, but she wasn’t able to either.  He asked the group if there was anyone else who might like to get up and share their memories, reminding them that they were among friends.  One man got up but was very upset and after a couple of choked sobs he sat straight down again.  I always think it’s such a pity when this happens.

A funeral is such a beautiful chance to share thoughts and memories about someone you love but it is so tough for some people to get up and speak full-stop, let alone under such emotional circumstances.

I did my first funeral speech when my first grandparent died and I learnt a very valuable lesson then.  Since then it’s become expected that I speak at family funerals…so I’ve done a lot of them.

I thought I’d share the two most valuable things I have learnt about giving funeral speeches – one taught to me by each of my grandads.

Don’t be afraid to cry

This one was taught to me by Grandad Twist – my mum’s dad.  It was almost a decade
ago now that he died. I was the eldest of four grandkids and it was suggested it might be nice for me to get up and speak on behalf of myself, my brother, and my cousins. I was planning what I would say and the funeral director spoke to me the day before the funeral and tried to give me some tips on how not to cry while speaking.  I can’t even remember what she told me but I do remember thinking afterwards ‘what’s wrong with me crying when I’m up there?’ so that was pretty much how I began my speech.  I said that I’d been given tips how not to cry but that my grandad was dead and I was sad and if I needed to cry I was damn well going to do it and they’d all just have to watch me. (Seriously this is what I said.  You can get away with all sorts in a funeral speech!  One day I’ll write a blog about all the crazy things I’ve said up there……Actually you’ll see what I mean when you get to the next point)

Everyone present is there for the same reason you are and are all feeling some variation of the same emotions as you.  No-one cares if you cry.  Who cares if water comes out your face and your eyes go a bit blotchy?  Who cares if your breathing gets a bit funny?  Who cares if you need to blow your nose? You’ll happily do it in public a hundred times when you have a cold.  Are you worried people will see you are sad?  They know you are so forget about it.

Telling yourself you aren’t supposed to cry and are supposed to hold it together up there (whose idea was that anyway?) will make it waaaaaay harder on you, especially if you are already nervous about speaking in front of a group.

Hey, I don’t love the idea of standing up and blubbing to a room either.  But I have done it often enough to know that the best thing you can do when you have to get up and speak at a funeral is tell yourself that you might, and that it’s fine.  And if you need to even start by telling everyone else that you might then do just that – it helps.

Maybe crying will make you or someone else uncomfortable but if you have something you want to share about the person you’ve lost then don’t let anything stop you. It might be your last chance to share with this particular group of people. One of the beautiful things about funerals is that they bring the people in your life together in one place the way no other event, not even a wedding, can.  There might be something tiny that you share that will bring a smile to the face of someone there or make them feel better.

Heck, what are you worried about?  They’re just tears.

Be honest.  Be brutally honest.

The other most important lesson I learnt was from Grandad West – my dad’s dad.  He died about 7 years ago.  In a nutshell Grandad West was a very tough man.  It wasn’t all bad of course – it never is – but in general he was very strict, quite controlling, could be pretty mean at times.  In his last couple of years he really mellowed out and was very different, but as kids we really didn’t get very excited about seeing him.

So come funeral time everyone was a bit nervous about speaking. I knew what would happen – everyone would get up and talk about how wonderful he was, and share all these amazing memories and basically fib.  A lot.  And all the rest of the family would be sitting during the service listening…and recognising all the fibs.  So here was the basis of my speech – I pointed out the good things about him but I also said that he was a hard man. I said that he could be mean and that we didn’t always like him.  But, I said, I wasn’t going to make up stories to honour a person of my own invention who didn’t even exist. I was there to say goodbye to my Grandad so I wanted to talk about him, warts and all, not some dreamed up fantasy of what I thought he should have been like.  Because, and here is the point, he may have been very tough to like at times, but he wasn’t tough to love. He was family – you love your family, it’s a given. No matter what they’ve done and no matter who they are, deep down you still love them. Sorry but there it is.  I said in my speech that to get up and talk him up as an angel was to suggest I couldn’t love him just as he was, which I did.

Like my first tip, if you are putting pressure on yourself to have to give some beautiful all-positive happy account of someone you love it’s going to make it that much harder.  Share.  Be honest. Talk about them as they really were because that’s who you knew and that’s how you loved them.

One day when it’s my turn to go I hope people at my funeral remember to share some of the embarrassing and stupid things I’ve done as well as the fun and exciting. I hope someone remembers to talk about how I could be a right royal stubborn and difficult pain in the backside, as well as all the lovely stuff.  Because I want to be remembered and loved for who I really am rather than who people would have liked me to be.  Don’t you? And don’t imagine that this isn’t the stuff people want to hear at a funeral.  That speech for my Grandad went down really well and quite a few family members, including my nana, wanted copies of it to keep.

So there are my two best tips for funeral speeches.  Don’t be afraid to cry, and be very honest. These will take LOADS of pressure off of you and make it much easier to stand up there and share whatever you’d like to with others who are also there to farewell the person you’ve all lost.

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Reflecting on Japan

Reflecting on Japan

I’ve been trying to write this blog for 2 days but every time I sit down it just won’t come out.

In the last few years there have been a lot of different natural disasters on our planet but this year has felt very different for me as it is all occurring in places I have called home.  I lived in Australia for a couple of years so in January I watched as Brisbane flooded and friends of mine who lived on the river had to pack up their entire apartment in 24 hours after being told they had 48 hours before it was flooded to the roof.

As a Kiwi I watched last month as the city of Christchurch was hit by NZ’s worst earthquake in 80 years.  Friends of mine lost people they loved there and the death toll seems to be sitting between 160-200 (it’s been hard to find accurate info online in the last couple of days as all searches for Christchurch bring up a lot of Japan info).

Now Japan.  I moved to Japan in my early 20’s for two years.  It was the first time I had lived abroad, travelled alone, or been further from home than Australia.  A lot of people visit Japan but you can never really get to know the people or understand the cultural differences until you’ve lived there.  It’s a country, and I’m sure I’m speaking for many ex-gaijin here (‘gaijin’ is the Japanese work for foreigner), that you can hate bitterly and love fiercely all at the same time while you are there.  Of all the places I have lived Japan changed me and shaped me more than any other.  And now I find myself watching as earthquakes and tsunamis strike it and the death toll is predicted as at least 10,000 in the Miyagi prefecture alone.  I am overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the devastation…but also by the sheer courage and beauty of the people in Japan, and the world that is banding together to support them.

There will probably be a lot more I will want to write about this in the upcoming weeks but today I’ll write what is true to me right now while I try to get my head around what I am seeing.

In the last few days, while watching the footage, photos, and the news of Japan I have been repeatedly struck by two recurring thoughts.

One is the desire to connect with people I know there. ‘Connect’ is a word I hear a lot of as in “Hey, it was great to connect with you” or “Let’s connect on facebook” and something about it always makes me want to stick my tongue out and blow a raspberry.  Nope, this is not what I mean by connection.  When I was 9 my best friend at the time moved to Hong Kong and here is what I would sometimes do when I was thinking about her.  I would focus all my thoughts as intently as I could on her, and I would think that right in that instant, whether she was sleeping, was with friends, or was doing her homework, and whether she was aware of it or not, I was right there with her.  It amazed me that through just focusing my thoughts, I could feel right next to her from thousands of miles away, and she wouldn’t even know it.  And I find myself doing the same now.  I keep focusing my thoughts and putting myself right there in Japan with two friends in particular. One who, though far away from the action, is a very anxious individual and I know is living in a little bit of a state of terror right now.  The other who is also far away and safe but is waiting for news from family who live in one of the areas that was first and worst hit by the tsunami.  I just feel the need to be there with them.  If you are imagining that your computer and your phone are the only ways that energy can connect you to people far away then think again.

The other overwhelming thought is about the brevity of our lives and how little we really think about this. I watch a pretty hard-hitting video of the tsunami…and then I write ‘happy birthday!’ on two facebook friend’s walls. I’ll finish this blog, then I’ll eat breakfast, have a shower, and make some calls for something I need to organise tonight.  “Live each day like it’s your last, ’cause one day you gonna be right”. Ray Charles said that…and you’ll find countless other quotes saying something similar.  I love the sentiment, I truly do, but how many people do you know who really live like this? Even if you spend some time thinking about this every day your mind will then be busy off thinking about the dry-cleaning that needs picking up, the business phone call you need to make, what you’ll have for lunch and who with, the latest guy/girl that you fancy, and in general what happened last week/year/decade and what might happen next week/year/decade.  Let’s get even more honest and admit that most of us to kinda take for granted that we’ll just be around till old age wears us out.  I don’t care what the average life-expectancy is or that your mum promised you you’ll live forever.  I might quite like the idea that I’ll live till 91 and die peacefully in my bed, but seriously, not a one of us was ever issued with any kind of guarantee of this or anything resembling it.  Something like what is happening in Japan makes you reflect on that, but only for a very brief time. And that’s ok – it wouldn’t be practical to constantly be thinking that it might all end tomorrow.  We reflect on the past, we spend time in the present, and we plan for the future – and all three are important.

But what I have been doing the last few days and I’ll do it again right now (join me if you want to) is to take a minute, I mean a really conscious minute to think about my life and about how lucky I am to have today.  Each extra day is a gift.  I often take that for granted, and I bet you do too, but not for this minute.  I’m thinking about the amazing people I have in my life and all the wonderful things I’ve been able to do with all the days I have been gifted until now.  I’m thinking about what really matters to me and who really matters to me if this really was my last day in the form I am currently in.  The little stressful things fall away and I’m thinking about what it is that I really want to do on this planet while I’m still Kristie West, however long that might be.

And I am sending my love, thoughts, and strength right now to the people of and the people in one of the most beautiful and amazing countries I know of -Japan.

雨降って地固まる (Ame futte chi katamaru) Japanese proverb meaning literally: after the rain, earth hardens (Adversity builds character)

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‘The Absolute Basics of Looking After Yourself After Losing a Parent’ 101

‘The Absolute Basics of Looking After Yourself After Losing a Parent’ 101

This also applies to losing anyone you love, or indeed taking any hard-hit from life or just feeling really, really (really, really) down or depressed.

Believe me, I know what it’s like when you are at your lowest, particularly when you’ve just lost your mum or dad or someone close to you and people are telling you books you should read, foods you should be juicing, runs and yoga classes you should be doing, meditation you should be trying, and people you should be talking to….and all you are thinking is “Yeah right. I don’t give a damn about any of this right now.  Just leave me alone here in bed.  Please turn the light out and shut the door as you leave”.

BUT it is so so so so important when you’re feeling like this after losing someone that you do the little things to support yourself.  The easy things.  Because though while things are feeling really tough, eating and drinking, showering and getting some fresh air might be the last things you care about but not supporting your body is not helping you one bit, and will actually be making you feel worse.  Think about when your body is sick with flu or something – it makes you feel rotten.  You don’t have energy or drive to do the things you normally do.  It’s a fairly simple equation: if you don’t support your body it hasn’t got much chance of supporting you, and at a time like this you really need it to.

So here, from my experience, are the absolute basics of looking after yourself when you’re feeling like this.  If all you can do is check these off your list for the day then you’re doing ok.  These are things that are self-explanatory and don’t need mentioning usually when you’re ok but when you’re not they can easily go out the window.

1.  Eat.  That’s right – eat. Don’t skip meals, even if you don’t really feel like them.  I’m not
going to give you a long list of what to eat.  Try and make sure as much of it is healthy stuff as you can – lots of fruit and veggies.  You know what works for your body – what kind of food and how much and how often.  A few years ago a friend of mine got some bad news about a family member…and basically stopped eating.  She was rapt with all the weight she lost but I can promise you that the half a piece of white toast and one chocolate bar she was consuming daily (I am not kidding) did nothing at all to help her manage her emotions and everything that was happening around her.

2.  Drink water. Your body needs it to run and you will feel worse without it.  If you aren’t a natural water drinker turn it into a herbal tea or put some ribena in it or something.  Just anything to get it into you.  A friend told me the other day there is absolutely no excuse for less than 2 litres a day and I think he’s right. Just do your best with it. I’m not saying stop your coffee and tea if you like them.  Just don’t try counting these as part of your water intake – that’s kinda cheating.

3.  Exercise. Especially if you’re in bed or on the sofa or just generally really sedentary at the moment. I know it can be a push to get out and do anything but your body needs a bit of movement and fresh air, and exercise is well-known for fighting the lowest of the low feelings/moods.  Just 15 minutes walk round the block.  That’s easy to do and way better than not doing it.

4.  Shower/bath every day. If for no other reason than it will make you feel a bit more alive and human.   (And you’ll smell and feel better for it.)

5.  Know your quick fix. This is about knowing what will make you feel a little bit better for when things feel really bad.  Is there a song that comforts you, a tv show that distracts you, a certain friend who makes you laugh, or a meditation technique, some rescue remedy,etc that brings you up a little bit when you need it?  I discovered EFT a few weeks ago and am in love with it – wish I had found it years ago.  This is probably not the time to be trying to learn new techniques though so go with something that already works for you.

6.  Friends/family/colleagues. Know who to call when you want a laugh.  Know who to call when you need a cry.  Know who to call when you just want to talk garbage for 5 minutes.  Tell them what you need i.e. “please just tell me about your day” or “ can you come over and sit and watch Eastenders with me.  I don’t want to talk, I just want the company”.  Know not everyone can be there for you, but at the same time don’t turn your back on the people who can.  Don’t unplug yourself from the world.  People contact helps. A lot.

7.  Cry. I mean it.  I’ve heard so much rubbish over the years about “crying solves nothing” and crap like that.  Crying is healing.  It’s whatever is inside of you needing to be expressed.  If you feel like crying and you tell yourself something like “be strong” all you do is push all those feelings back down and believe me, your body doesn’t want to hold all that in.  I say this from experience.  After my dad died I couldn’t cry for ages, I just felt so numb.  And I am also in general not a big fan of crying in front of others.  Everything was held in my body and I was in physical agony.  At my worst I ended up in emergency at the hospital with abdominal pains and spasms more painful than anything I have ever experienced before or since. I could barely speak or stand from the pain and was rushed straight in ahead of about 20 people already in the waiting room….only to be told after a bunch of tests that they couldn’t find any explanation and the pain just faded within a few hours.  That was really scary and a wake-up though.  Sorry for this analogy but it’s like being constipated – your body doesn’t want to hold all this, you need to let it out.  To keep it in is poisonous and can be dangerous.

If you can’t cry then try watching a sad movie or listening to a sad song. This isn’t about forcing yourself to cry – it’s about finding a way to let it out when you’re trying so hard to hold it in.  Not long after my little trip to emergency I went to watch an Aussie movie called ‘Look Both Ways’ which had a lot of death and tragedy in it and I cried the entire way through.  It really helped.

8.  Watch your alcohol intake. I’m careful what I say here. After my dad died I steadily worked my way through every bottle of  wine in my parents liquor cabinet, almost single-handedly.  No-one tried to stopped me – which is good as they would’ve had a hell of an argument on their hands had they tried.  I’m not saying don’t drink at all.  I am saying just to be aware that alcohol is a very well-known depressant, and if you are drinking a lot it is going to be playing a bit of extra havoc with your emotions and moods, which you really don’t need right now.

7.  Be kind to yourself. More than anything else be kind to yourself. You deserve to be looked after right now so put yourself first.  It can be so difficult when you are expected to be helping others, particularly your family after a family death, but just like they tell you on the airplane – you’ve got to get your own oxygen mask on before you can help anyone else.  Make sure you’re ok first.  Otherwise you’re wearing yourself too thin and might not be half as helpful as you’d like to be for anyone else either.

That’s it. Those are my 7 absolute basics.  When you feel a bit better there are lots of other things you can do to help yourself but just to have these bases covered when you can’t handle anything more will really help.  And I am always here if you need me.


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How to bring a community together – the Christchurch Earthquake Vigil in London

How to bring a community together – the Christchurch Earthquake Vigil in London

A few days ago a Kiwi friend sent me the facebook invite to the Earthquake Vigil for New Zealanders in London, at Westminster Cathedral.  The idea behind it was to bring Kiwis in London together to pay our respects, send our prayers and love, offer support to those among us who have been affected in some way, to pull together and show our solidarity to the people of Christchurch, and raise money for the Red Cross earthquake appeal.

So, decked out in full New Zealand regalia, i.e. the pounamu (read: greenstone necklace)  that I haven’t worn in I-don’t-know-how-long (see picture), I headed out on what was a freeeeezing night to meet two of my oldest friends and go to the service.   

We arrived to a massive courtyard filled with people waiting to enter the cathedral and once the doors were opened we all started flooding in and quickly filled the 1,500 seats.  I estimated that close to another 1,000 were inside standing.  Apparently the courtyard outside was also filled and it is estimated that 5,000 people attended.  It was organised by 4 Kiwi expats and done almost entirely through facebook, in case you doubt the power of social media to connect people.

It was a really lovely service with a message from our Prime Minister, personal reflections and stories from Christchurch read out to us, and prayers and song.

Two things about this event stood out and really spoke to me.

Firstly, it never fails to inspire and humble me the way tragedy has the power (indeed it is one of the only things that can) to bring people together like this. 5,000 Kiwis in one place on one cold night in London.  Ok, so maybe a rugby game or a Kiwi-only event with free beer could achieve a similar number (well, 4,999 people anyway.  I wouldn’t be attending either!) but they couldn’t bring us together in the same spirit and sense of solidarity as tonight did.  The last time I saw that many Kiwis in one place I was in NZ.

For about an hour, 5,000 of us came together to show Christchurch that though we are on the other side of the world we are thinking of them, praying for them, here for them.

The second thing that got me (and this bit really got me) was when we had 2 minutes of silence.  To stand in a crowd 5,000 strong, for 2 minutes of complete silence – there was a real sense of power in that.  I have been in crowds that big that are dancing.  I have been in crowds that big that are waiting (this is England).  I have been in crowds that big that are protesting.  But never have I felt so aware of the power and oneness of a crowd as I did last night.

We spend a lot of time thinking about our uniqueness, what makes us different from everyone else, why we stand out from the crowd, what it is that makes me ‘me’.

It was nice for a moment to take a break from that and experience what makes me the same as everyone else, my indistinguishableness (it’s my blog. I get to make words up), my plain old alikeness.  In this case, quite simply my Kiwiness.

At a time like this you get reminded that you aren’t just a ‘you’, you are an ‘us’.  You are part of a group – whatever that group might be for you – you are part of something much bigger, you are a drop in the ocean.  And there is great value in acknowledging that.  I think it’s the only way you can really experience that oneness and be able to come together not just as a crowd, but as a crowd with a heart.

So, if I may be so bold to speak on behalf of a group of 5,000, we are sending out all of our love, thoughts and prayers to Christchurch and those affected by this last quake.  Though we are geographically far away we are all with you in spirit.

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In the wake of a tragedy – the Christchurch earthquake.

In the wake of a tragedy – the Christchurch earthquake

On Monday night I came home and saw that a friend in Christchurch had commented on facebook about another earthquake.  I didn’t think much of it as they have been having ongoing aftershocks since the one in September…and I thought it must have been one of those.  I woke on Tuesday to find facebook (my source of almost all world news these days) covered in posts about the earthquake and it’s impacts, people checking in with others for news, friends asking that people pray for their loved ones.

This morning the official death toll is at 98 but there are 226 listed missing and the Prime Minister John Keys has said “We are very fearful tonight that the death toll could be much greater than any of us have ever feared.”  It has been NZ’s deadliest disaster in 80 years.

I spent a lot of Tuesday contacting friends who are either in Christchurch or have family there, reading articles and updates, looking at pictures and watching videos – some that were horrifying and heartbreaking.  One of the most hard-hitting was this one. 

How to make sense of what has happened and is happening?  A couple of years ago I might have written something that would have come across as insensitive and apathetic to explain why this has happened and what will come out of it.  But I am not there.  I don’t know what it is like for those involved.  I can’t possibly imagine.  Though people I know have been affected, either through being there themselves or losing loved ones in the quake, no-one I personally know has been counted in the death toll.  I don’t feel I have a right to comment on what it might be like for them.  But here is what I do know for sure and do feel I have a right to comment on…..

There is absolutely NOTHING that unites us like death.

There is nothing that has the power to bring a family, a community, a country, a people together like a loss of life, particularly on such a scale.

I have been watching as Air NZ has dropped it’s prices to almost nothing to fly in or out of Christchurch those affected or immediate family members. I have seen friends post on facebook as they wait for news about their loved ones and then post again as they get the news – one way or another – and the messages of support flood in to them. Defence staff, medics, and engineers are coming from all over the country and flying in from the UK, US, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore and Japan.  There are sites and facebook pages where you can find/provide temporary accommodation, need/give supplies & comfort, donate, search for/find loved ones,  and provide messages of support.

I was moved to tears after seeing a friend in Wellington open up her home, saying that she had two spare rooms available to ‘anyone’ who needed a place to stay.  She is one of many.

At what other time do you see a nation pull together like this than in the face of such tragedy?  Great strength and life emerge from something like this.

I’ll be honest that I am not sure whether I feel so relieved not to be there or if I wish I could be there to really DO something. But one thing is for sure – I feel more ‘Kiwi’ than I have in years. I feel fiercely patriotic right now and I feel so connected to MY country.  It’s been a long, long time since I felt this way.

Keys has said “Things will get better. Christchurch will rise again. This country is right behind you and we are backing you with all of our might.”

And if they didn’t already know, now the world will see what Kiwis are made of.

Kia kaha, New Zealand. Aroha nui.

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